"I don't think the manager is in any fit state to talk to the referee about the decision", said Mike Phelan of Sir Alex Ferguson. Lots of other people did have a say though, including Phelan himself: "We all witnessed a decision that seemed very harsh, possibly incredible at that moment in the game". Manchester United’s assistant manager is seeking balance here, which is admirable (imagine what Jose Mourinho would have said in his position). In so doing, he has made two separate but related observations about Cuneyt Cakir’s decision to send off Nani ten minutes into the second half of Real Madrid’s tie-clinching 2-1 victory.
Phelan’s first observation – that the decision "seemed very harsh" – is non-committal. Firstly, if it seemed harsh at the time, does it now seem reasonable? Probably not, at least not to Phelan, but there is something in that. Most people’s immediate reaction – mine certainly – was surprise when Nani was, two minutes after the incident, shown the red card. Retrospectively, though, Alvaro Arbeloa was kicked in the chest and, given that we readily accept flicks to the calf and knees to the bum as red-worthy, that does seem sufficiently dangerous*.
*I think part of the problem here is with the relative unusualness of Nani’s foul. You just don’t see a kick to the chest too often – which means that when you do, as we’ll discuss below, you tend to remember them. I actually think it was the right decision For once "new" media is constraining here, but if you have a "new"spaper try this. Cut Nani out of one of his mid-air photos. Since he didn’t get the ball, we don’t need to worry too much about that. Move him down Arbeloa’s body until he makes contact with his upper leg/knee. That’s a red isn’t it? Since, by definition, the referee is judging Nani’s actions only, it would be counterintuitive in the extreme to judge that what would merit a red below the waste is only a yellow above it.
So: here, and here, you can see two of the World Cup’s most notorious fouls. Notorious in part because in neither case was the perpetrator dismissed, Nani’s foul is not identical with these but it does share one common and generally undesirable feature. He is probably unlucky, then, to have received the sanction (in)famously denied his forebears but to be unlucky is not necessarily to be wronged.
This brings us to a more vexed problem, one that is at the heart of most red-tinged arguments. Deciding between red and yellow, the referee has to apply a binary judgment to what is essentially an analog situation. Kicks in the chest – as Schumacher-De Jong-Nani shows – exist in a sort of spectrum: we could equally write Schumacher>De Jong>Nani (where > means worse than). The referee, therefore, has to place his card cutoffs within that spectrum and this is where "harshness" comes in. We might want him to decide that Nani’s kick comes within the yellow shaded area of the spectrum – with the red starting immediately afterwards, perhaps – but if he ("harshly") deems it to be within the outer reaches of the red, well then we (and Nani) are screwed. Harsh, similarly, does not mean wrong.
This brings us into the further confusion indicated by Phelan’s second judgment: that the decision was "possibly incredible at that moment in the game". Without wanting to skip the wonderful "possibly incredible" altogether (let’s just have the briefest of pauses to consider what world that refers to), the key point here is about context. We want referees to consider context a lot more than they probably can. Obviously a red card with half an hour of a finely poised Champions League knockout tie remaining means a lot more than one in the last five minutes of a standard issue Premier League shellacking. Perhaps this means that referees should, in general, relax their standards – push their red and yellow thresholds higher into the spectrums of the various foul types. I have some sympathy with that position; though, again, if the referee chooses to ignore it then he is harsh, not wrong.
The problem with asking referees to judge on context is that it is entirely subjective and virtually infinite. Nani’s red card did not, in itself, "change the context of the game"; rather, it opened a wormhole in the game, which could have led anywhere. Red cards – meted out by a semi-active protagonist – are, like saves or goalkeeping errors – also the acts of semi-active protagonists, potentially decisive; Nani’s red card became "decisive" only once Madrid made it so.
And so we shouldn’t get too hung up on refereeing decisions. And Sir Alex should have come out and spoken. If he had, he could have told us how proud he was of his players’ efforts to prevent a harsh refereeing decision from becoming decisive (the way, it could be argued, Madrid’s players made Rafael’s unpunished goal-line handball and Higuain’s nonsensically disallowed goal inconsequential).